Police Shooting Death of Activist in Atlanta Reignites Push for Land Defense

Feb 2, 2023
2:44 PM

Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán, an environmental activist, was shot and killed by a Georgia State Patrol officer on January 18 during a multi-agency sweep to remove land defenders from the Weelaunee Forest in southeast Atlanta. (Courtesy of Defend the Atlanta Forest)

Martyr. Revolutionary. Hero. Comrade.

This is how people describe Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán.

Juan Jose Londoño knew them as a friend, becoming close after they first met in Panama about six years ago. Tortuguita even attended the wedding of Londoño and his husband, Greg Hearn.

In Panama, Londoño used to help Tortuguita with signs and posters when they participated in protests.

“They had a fire to fight,” Londoño said about Tortuguita, who was shot and killed by a Georgia State Patrol officer on January 18 during a multi-agency sweep to remove land defenders from the Weelaunee Forest in southeast Atlanta. Local police, state troopers, and other agencies joined forces, resulting in the arrests of 19 people who were charged with domestic terrorism, the injury to one state trooper, and the first killing of an environmental rights activist on U.S. soil.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said in a press release that the officers involved claimed Tortuguita fired first during their sweep, and that police only responded in self-defense.

Land defenders on the ground, however, said they never heard a single shot, only rapid gunfire.

“It’s normal for parkgoers to have a weapon, but I have personally never had one, heard or seen anyone being armed when on the ground,” said Ollie, who met Tortuguita in the spring of 2022 when they first camped in the forest with other defenders. Police intimidation has become an increasingly common tactic when clearing out the forest, they said.

This was the first time anyone had been shot since the forest occupation began, said Ollie. Clearing the area by shooting pepper balls at campers has been a more common practice by police, but never with live ammunition.

GBI said investigators found a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm handgun on Tortuguita.

Tortuguita’s friends and family have been shaken by the news. They cannot that Tortuguita were armed, let alone that they fired first at police.

“He was a pacifist,” Hearn said at a candlelight vigil held at Balboa Park in San Diego on the evening of January 21, adding that it’s “sad, infuriating and disgusting” how authorities are defaming Tortuguita’s name and work to protect the environment.

Photographs of the gun allegedly used by Tortutguita were released, but documentation of the morning of the shootout has yet to be made available to the public. GBI stated that there is no footage of what happened because the Georgia State Patrol doesn’t wear cameras, but “there is bodycam footage of the aftermath.”

“They (police) not only assassinated him, but are now assassinating his character,” Hearn said.

“Tortuguita was Indigenous Venezuelan of Timoto-Cuica descent, queer, non-binary, and always the biggest light in any room they entered. They were an echo-anarchist, land defender and community member,” wrote Daniel Paez, Terán’s older brother, on their GoFundMe page.

“People are still processing the shock of what happened, but this is a moment where the movement will grow beyond the forest,” Ollie said.

What is now known as the Weelaunee Forest in Dekalb County is land stolen from the Muscogee people. It was later turned into a plantation and then a prison farm that closed in 1996, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective.

In 2017, the Atlanta City Council approved the preservation of the South River Forest, part of the Weelaunee Forest. According to a city planning report, the area was referred to as one of the city’s major “lungs,” referring to its lush greenery.

A few weeks later, a councilmember introduced a plan by the Atlanta Police Federation to construct an 85-acre police and fire training facility, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, on the same piece of land. The City Council approved the plan.

Dubbed “Cop City” by community members and environmental rights activists, the training center has been viewed as a controversial move by local elected officials, resulting in a 17-hour hearing during which about 70 percent of the comments were from constituents who opposed the $90 million training facility.

There has been a lot of opposition, said Nina Dutton, chair of the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter’s Metro Atlanta Group.

“The forest is the filter of our city,” Dutton said. The Sierra Club will continue to fight to stop Cop City, because “if the movement stops, we’ll definitely lose.”

While the Atlanta Police Federation is backed by banks, corporations, and local governments, the Weelaunee Forest has land defenders, community members, and other stakeholders on its side, with the world now watching.

Dutton recalled how in 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched its campaign against the laying of the Dakota Access Pipeline underneath Lake Oahe, which straddles the border of North Dakota and South Dakota.

There are “forces protecting corporate interest” at the Atlanta Forest, and the same goes for other environmental battles across the world, said Dutton said. He sees the violence of January 18 as part of a troubling trend of police engaging with land defenders.

Still hurting from the death of Tortuguita, a friend who requested to remain anonymous wrote: “We indigenous and black queer trans [two-spirt, gender non-conforming] folks are grieving the death of Tortuguita here in Atlanta and are hurting realizing that the ongoing war on indigenous and black people has not stopped since colonization started but rather intensified.

“We call on everyone but especially on white people (who are still benefiting [from] this ongoing colonialism/ capitalism) to stand up for us strongly and in meaningful ways. If they fail to do this, they fail Tortuguita and ultimately fail the planet and the chances of survival of all the young generations regardless of who they are.”

Tortuguita is one more in a long legacy of murdered land and water defenders like Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman who had organized her community to oppose the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River and was shot to death at her home in Honduras in 2016. She was one of 1,733 environmental rights activists killed between 2012 to 2022, according to a Global Witness report.

Latin America ranks as the deadliest region for defenders of land and natural resources, with Brazil being the most murderous, according to the report. The country recorded 342 murders during the same 10 years, where “a third of those killed were Indigenous or Afro-descendants, and over 85% of killings happened within the Brazilian Amazon.”

Colombia registered 322, Mexico 154, Honduras 117 killed, Guatemala 80, Nicaragua 57, and Peru 51.

According to the report, there are five main intersecting reasons behind the threats and killings of environmental defenders: land inequality, violent conflict, corruption, shrinking civic space, and corporate impunity—all evident in Tortuguita’s case.

“This serves as a reminder on how these struggles are connected,” Dutton said.


Shahrazad Encinias is a bilingual multimedia journalist who reports on social justice, environmental justice, and human rights. She is currently based in Guatemala. Twitter: @ShaEnci